Learnings from Stand-up Comedy

May 16th, 2013
(No, this is not about the use of humour in TV ads.)

I’ve always been a huge fan of comedy in TV and film, and watching live stand-up. Only recently, though, did I think about why, and realized that the challenges and the process are quite similar to those in my day job as a strategist. A lot of comedy is based on observations of human behavior, pinpointing things that we recognize in ourselves but hadn’t spotted, then bringing them to life in a way that captures our imagination. Sound familiar?

18 months ago, I was given a course in stand-up comedy as a Christmas present, including a performance to a packed theatre at the end of the course.
As you can probably imagine, that night was scary as hell, especially the excruciating hour or so before I went onstage. But – once people started laughing at my material and the nerves settled down – it was truly exhilarating.

The course wasn’t really about helping us write material. Yes, they gave us tips, but basically, we had to do it for ourselves, about whatever we found funny. The course was mostly learning about performance: story, structure, delivery styles and techniques, audience interaction, etc.

So I had to come up with material, decide what was worth including, then structure it, tweak it, edit it down.
And of course I had to execute my thoughts. Perform them.
Luckily, I could apply some of my skills I’d picked up in my day job in strategy: how to create content that engages people, both in the eventual target audience but also your immediate target: your client and your creatives.

Looking back now, I realize it works the other way too; I’ve learned from comedy writing and performing. So here are a few areas of similarity that might improve your briefs and strategy decks, and maybe also the resulting content.

Be curious.
Question why people do things, why certain things happen the way they do. Don’t be afraid of stupid questions.

Know your audience.
Get under their skin. What drives them, moves them?

Small can become big.
Dig around in the small stuff that may seem unimportant – make it relevant and interesting.

Think laterally.
Look for paradoxes, unlikely connections. Ask ‘What if?”

Make choices.
You can’t do everything. Choose. Focus. This is the heart of all strategy.

Create the right context.
Context is everything – the right context can make something stand out, interesting, surprising, meaningful, powerful, challenging.
Don’t go for the obvious set-up, think laterally.

Eventually, when you do get some interesting observations, stories, ideas… interrogate the hell out of them.
What’s keeping your audience engaged, and what’s distracting them?
What’s the killer line? And what do you need to set it up? Take out everything else.

Be true to yourself.
Find your style, your way of saying something. Learn from but don’t copy others.

So, if you’re a junior strategist, look out for good comedians, especially the ones who manage to capture interesting insights. Think about why they’re funny, and how they might have got to those memorable lines and how they’re delivering them.

I’ll doubt if I’ll persuade any comedians to start a career in strategic planning, but maybe some planners might use their skills and have a go at stand-up?

Meanwhile, I’m figuring out how to deal with the hecklers I get in my day job…


Simon is a Senior Strategy Director at Blast Radius in Amsterdam. He’s also one of our featured Insiders here on Junior Strategy. Keep up with Simon on twitter @sneatestidson and be sure to check out his very first on stage appearance with Easy Laughs Amsterdam




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